Identity Investments
Middle-Class Responses to Precarious Privilege in Neoliberal Chile
Joel Phillip Stillerman


Contents and Abstracts
chapter abstract

This chapter uses concepts of identity investments and precarious privilege in contrast to other studies emphasizing upper-middle-class opportunity hoarding and social mobility into the lower-middle class. Identity investments are values that motivate market behavior. The chapter explores four middle-class groups' identity investments: upper-middle-class activists, moderate Catholics, and youngsters; and lower-middle-class pragmatists. They differ in ideological orientation, age cohort, and economic position. Precarious privilege—middle-class families' fragile hold on their economic position due to job instability—influences their identity investments. Families' residential location also shapes their identity investments. Middle-class groups' diverging identity investments help explain Chile's 2006–2021 anti-neoliberal protest cycle, countermovements on the political right, and the push for a new Constitution. The study relies on interviews, participant observation, and photographs of homes in two Santiago, Chile, communities focused on investments in job, housing, school, home decoration, and leisure.

1 Perilous Pathways to Middle-Class Employment
chapter abstract

This chapter examines how weak job protections, slowing economic growth in the 2000s, and gender inequality gave many families a precarious hold on their middle-class positions. Doctors, lawyers, financial analysts, and accountants fared well on the job market. Teachers often pursued a second career due to professional downgrading, clerical workers churned through different jobs, and women struggled to establish work/family balance in the context of gender segregated jobs, a patriarchal family ideology, and expensive childcare. Individuals that engaged in high-risk activism during the Pinochet dictatorship (1973–1990) faced expulsion from college, earnings losses, and job instability in government jobs. Activists and moderate Catholics disidentified with coworkers who they associated with the neoliberal values of competition and wealth. The chapter demonstrates the influence of precarious employment and careers on identity investments and the construction of symbolic boundaries within the middle class.

2 Housing, Extended Family, and the Search for a Sense of Place
chapter abstract

This chapter explores middle-class families' housing access, taste in homes and communities, and the symbolic boundaries families construct with other middle-class groups. Couples rely on extended family for capital and information for housing access, while their differential access to resources affects housing stability and property ownership. Families seek neighborhoods that provide amenities, sense of place, or high-quality schools. The pursuit of sense of place is revealed through decisions to remain in childhood communities, settle near kin, and reside in a "community of peers," in contrast to studies of gentrification focusing on middle-class settlement in new, low-income communities. Upper-middle-class activists and moderate Catholics criticize high-rise apartments, gated communities, and showroom houses as standardized symbols of neoliberalism that erode community, while lower-middle-class pragmatists seek to avoid the poor. Housing access reflects precarious privilege, while neighborhood selection and symbolic boundaries reveal identity investments.

3 School Choice: Neighborhoods, Values, and Concerted Cultivation
chapter abstract

This chapter examines middle-class school choice and enrichment activities in two Santiago, Chile, communities, arguing that parents select secular or religious schools in accord with their identity investments rather than solely to secure children's privilege. It uses Lareau's concept of "micro-climates" to explore distinct local school markets. Parents in the affluent community of Ñuñoa sent students to fully private schools that reflected their identity investments, while rejecting competitive elite schools. In suburban La Florida, parents sent children to widely available charter schools, while rejecting public and fully private schools as academically deficient. In contrast to upper-middle-class parents focused on values, pragmatists sought children's upward mobility through schools. Upper-middle-class parents compensated for schools' perceived deficiencies through concerted cultivation. The chapter demonstrates that identity investments and school micro-climates shape parents' choices in contrast to studies focused mainly on economic segregation across schools.

4 Community, Conflict, and Citizenship at Schools
chapter abstract

This chapter argues that parents' identity investments in schools shape their sense of community, construction of symbolic boundaries, and exercise of citizenship at schools in contrast with studies arguing that middle-class parents primarily focus on hoarding opportunities for their children. Upper-middle-class parents identified with their children's schools, though parents felt distant from mixed-class schools. Activists and moderate Catholics in middle-class schools rejected the perceived materialism and hostility of youngsters; while the latter saw secular, alternative schools as riven by disorganization and bullying. In mixed-class schools, moderate Catholics and youngsters criticized pragmatists' lack of involvement in school, while pragmatists resented the upper-middle class and the poor. Activist and moderate Catholic adults and teens engaged in activism reflecting broader protests and social conflicts, which youngsters and pragmatists criticized as disrupting schools. Schools are not only machines of social reproduction but also platforms for social transformation.

5 Home Decorations as Representations of Family, Taste, and Identity
chapter abstract

This chapter examines identity investments in home decorations, identifying three patterns of aesthetic taste: a shared middle-class aesthetic, contrasting tastes across middle-class groups, and moral-aesthetic conflicts regarding decorative styles. Middle-class families displayed a shared taste for rustic designs, practical furniture, and gifted/ inherited items, showing how homes operate within a gift economy. Different middle-class groups expressed distinct tastes reflecting their identity investments: moderate Catholics preferred religious themes; activists displayed cosmopolitan progressive tastes; youngsters preferred genre-spanning decorations; and pragmatists adopted a DIY style. Middle-class distastes operated within a common discursive field contrasting craft and minimalist decorative styles, though they shared "anti-consumption" orientations. These tastes varied across two communities studied, with ostentatious styles present in the affluent Ñuñoa community and subdued styles in suburban La Florida. The presence of three taste patterns contrasts with studies identifying a single pattern of taste in home decorations.

6 Leisure Time Practices across Groups and Communities
chapter abstract

This chapter examines middle-class cultural consumption and leisure practices, identifying three distinct patterns. Families found live events cost-prohibitive, preferred educational leisure activities, and counterposed their educational consumption practices to the perceived moral deficiencies of "crass consumerism." Different groups displayed distinct tastes and practices: activists preferred art film and political folk music, revealing omnivorous tastes and political identities; moderate Catholics enjoyed family-friendly activities and restricted video game use, reflecting moral values; youngsters enjoyed didactic activities with children; and pragmatists preferred celebrations with extended kin and popular music. Leisure practices varied, with Ñuñoa residents engaging in public cultural consumption and neighborhood activism, and suburban La Florida residents preferring domestic activities and popular music concerts. These findings reveal shared middle-class leisure practices, ideological influences on distinct forms of cultural consumption across middle-class groups, and how place-based cultural infrastructure and social networks influence cultural consumption and civic engagement.

Conclusion: Identity Investments, Precarious Privilege, and Chile's Political Transformation
chapter abstract

The conclusion reviews previous chapters' findings while highlighting the book's theoretical, comparative, and political insights. In contrast to studies focused on social mobility and opportunity hoarding, I find that middle-class identity investments build on political and religious values of solidarity and morality. The book contributes to our understanding of cohort replacement by contrasting the distinct childhood political experiences of activists and moderate Catholics born in the 1960s with youngsters born under Chile's dictatorship. I also show how place shapes middle-class market practices across distinct neighborhoods. The study contrasts with other Latin American cases due to Chile's durable partisan and religious identities. My focus on middle-class identity investments during Michelle Bachelet's first presidential administration (2006–2010) reveals the importance of the middle-class for understanding student movements, the 2019 "social explosion," political polarization, the Constitutional Convention, and the presidential election of former student leader Gabriel Boric.

Appendix: Research Design and Methods
chapter abstract

This chapter describes this study's design, data gathering methods, data interpretation procedures, and researcher positionality. I interviewed seventy-seven middle-class adults in five secular and Catholic schools in the affluent Ñuñoa and suburban La Florida communities of Santiago, Chile, with the goal of exploring variations in middle-class market behavior based on education, economic position, and ideological orientation. After constructing snowball samples, I identified secular and Catholic schools in the two communities, where I used semistructured interviews, participant observation, and photographs of home interiors. Interviews focused on family history, education, employment, housing, schools, home decoration, and leisure activities. I used grounded theory, extended case method, and abductive approaches for data coding, interpretation, and theoretical discovery. I explore my positionality in relation to middle-class Chilean research participants based on my identity, previous research experience, and how I negotiated the interview encounter.